The Columbus Blue Jackets made history by winning their first playoff round in franchise history, but fell short of their ultimate goal in a six-game, Round 2 loss to the Boston Bruins.
It was an eventful season in many ways. GM Jarmo Kekalainen's decision to not only hold onto impending UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, but to add to his team at the trade deadline dominated headlines, and the Blue Jackets' dismantling sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning is one of the more memorable playoff defeats in recent memory.
Our staff gathered to put some finishing touches on the season that was, with a wishful eye towards the future. Without further ado, let's jump in – there's plenty to discuss.
Put a bow on the 2018-19 Blue Jackets season. What is this team’s legacy, and how will they be remembered?
Sam Blazer: It will be remembered as one of the better Blue Jackets teams in their history. Regardless of playoff outcome, you look at the players on this team on paper and it was very, very, deep. They ran into a buzz-saw that is the Boston Bruins. They took them to six games and the series easily could have gone to seven. Two of the best to lace them up, Panarin and Bobrovsky, also helped make this incredibly memorable.
Dan Dukart: I believe that we’ll look back quite fondly on this season. We’ll remember a team that navigated choppy waters behind the guidance of John Tortorella and the supervision of Jarmo Kekalainen, decided to go all in – for the locker room, the fans and the city – instead of playing the long game for the millionth time. I think this season will be revered in many years for how many new fans it minted and how the next generation of hockey players in Columbus saw their hometown team play hometown boy Sean Kuraly and thought (correctly): that could be me.
Chris Pennington: I think part of this team’s legacy will be somewhat dependent on how this upcoming season goes. If the club struggles and misses the playoffs, this past year could be viewed as somewhat of a waste to go “all in” too early and force a rebuild. If the team can find success again (meaning, at least make the playoffs again and make a bit of a run), this past year could be seen as a big milestone to how the franchise officially put its name on the map of the NHL and didn’t look back.
Ben Jandrain: When asked this question, I try to think of an all-encompassing word to use. “The Columbus Blue Jackets season was [blank]." It was brash. Jarmo Kekalainen shocked the hockey universe, acquiring Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Adam McQuaid, and Keith Kinkaid before the trade deadline. Then, after making the playoffs, they swept the Tampa Bay Lightning. I’ll never forget being there at Game 4 of that series. It felt surreal. Despite the second-round exit, Columbus took the hockey world by storm in 2019 and we’ll always remember it fondly.
Jacob Nitzberg: This team’s legacy will forever be cemented around the complete deconstruction of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs, although some will claim that the loss to Boston is more important due to the “all-in” approach the Blue Jackets took at the deadline. The sweep of the Lightning captivated hockey fans nationwide and awakened many in Columbus. Though the regular season was a very bumpy ride, I believe that the beginning of the stretch run through the first round of the playoffs is what defines this Blue Jackets’ team.
Let’s move forward to next season. All of the noise seems to be surrounding this team’s UFAs, and it’s justified. Is there a reason to panic if the Blue Jackets are unable to re-sign Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel?
SB: I think if they lose Duchene on top of everyone else, there is some reason to panic. They will have a lot of cap room, but do you ever want to overpay free agents when you can avoid it entirely? The prospects are going to be good and they seem to be replenishing the pipeline consistently. If they lose them all, you should be worried, but a signing of one or two shouldn’t make for a big drop off.
DD: It completely depends on who (if anyone) Kekalainen is able to woo in free agency or acquire via trades. If all those players leave, the team’s dynamic will certainly change, and not for the better. The loss of Duchene would be a crushing blow for a team that has been looking desperately for a top-line center to compliment Pierre-Luc Dubois, and while Panarin and Bobrovsky would obviously leave enormous vacancies, the Blue Jackets are in many ways better equipped to replace a winger and their goalie.
CP: If the Blue Jackets can’t manage to bring in any other free agents and lose all four of the guys listed above, that’s a problem. You absolutely need stars in this league, especially in the playoffs to make a run. The club should be deep and a difficult team to play against regardless of what happens in free agency, but when it comes to the postseason, you need guys who can light the lamp. No one on the team could do that besides Duchene and Panarin in this year’s playoffs, soooo...
BJ: After three consecutive playoff appearances, it feels a little excessive to press the panic button. John Tortorella and his players have, as he puts it, “found a way” to make hockey more relevant than ever in Columbus, Ohio. Josh Anderson, Oliver Bjorkstrand, Alexandre Texier, and Dubois are prime examples of homegrown players who can step up their game to help aid the depletion of star power. While there’s an apparent drop in talent, at least the team won’t have to deal with the off-ice drama that Panarin and Bobrovsky provided in the 2018-19 campaign.
JN: It’s absolutely a reason to panic if none of these four guys are with the organization at the beginning of next year. Scoring and goaltending would both be huge question marks, not to mention continuity in the locker room. Duchene and Panarin were the Blue Jackets’ best forwards during their playoff run. If all four leave, Kekalainen will have to make some moves in free agency to bolster the roster – he’d certainly have the cap space to do it.
What will the goaltending battery look like at the beginning of next season?
SB: It will be Merzlikins and Korpisalo. They could bring another in to compete, but to me, ensuring money goes elsewhere this off-season seems right. I give it a 1% chance that Bobrovsky re-signs with the club. Korpisalo has the skill set to be a starter, yet making that jump still feels a long way off. Merzlikins is the wild card and could realistically come in and steal the entire thing.
DD: Elvis has entered the building. Bobrovsky has listed his condo. It doesn’t take a genius to put two and two together. Merzlikins should have every chance to win the starting job next season, and I’m excited and cautiously optimistic to see how he’ll perform in the NHL. Joonas Korpisalo may soon learn the hard way that hockey is a business, and I suspect he’ll be traded, as I can’t imagine the Blue Jackets will want to go into the season with an inexperienced Merzlikins-Korpisalo tandem. Starting next season, Korpisalo can’t be sent to AHL Cleveland without clearing waivers, so options are limited. Look for the Blue Jackets to bring in a veteran like Keith Kinkaid, Petr Mrazek, Robin Lehner, or James Reimer to help Merzlikins acclimate to life in the NHL.
CP: I’m ready for the Elvis Merzlikins era. For a lot of reasons, I think it would help the Blue Jackets in the long term to move on from Sergei Bobrovsky. For example, they’d be able to spend their money on scorers rather than paying a 30-year-old goalie upwards of $10M per season. In regards to a depth chart, I could see the team dishing Joonas Korpisalo to have Keith Kinkaid as a veteran influence on Merzlikins. Love Korpisalo, but he hasn’t given me (or the club) any reason to believe he’d be a franchise goaltender. Merzlikins has with his international reputation.
BJ: Bobrovsky is gone. Wow, it feels weird saying that out loud. I may be investing too much stock into this, but I was impressed with Korpisalo in the 2015-16 season when he had a .920 save percentage in 31 games. A season-defining moment was Korpisalo saving a combined 64 of 68 shots on net in back-to-back wins against the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals following the debacle of Bobrovsky leaving the bench early in a 4-0 loss to the Lightning in January. Merzlikins has a bright future in Columbus, but I think Korpisalo will be the starter at the beginning of the season. That is, until Merzlikins takes over the starting job at about the midway point of the year.
JN: It’s time to see what Elvis can do. Bobrovsky’s contract demands may be too much for the Blue Jackets to handle, and statistically, it would be a risk. Merzlikins has made the jump over to Columbus, and he’ll be looking to win the starting job next year. Korpisalo could be on his way out of Columbus, as it would make the most sense for the Blue Jackets to re-sign Kinkaid or another veteran to help Merzlikins adjust to the NHL style of play. It’s not like Merzlikins is a young prospect, though. The Latvian netminder is 25, and he’s played most of six seasons professionally. Hopefully, he’ll be able to get comfortable sooner rather than later.
This team captured the attention of the city of Columbus and gave fans an unforgettable first-round win. Will the Blue Jackets be able to make the playoffs in 2019-20? If no, is the momentum gained in the spring of 2019 all for naught?
SB: I think they make the playoffs, but barely sneak in. They are going to be young, but a lot of players are going to have experience under their belt. They need a dynamic player in the worst way to step up. They don’t have to be Panarin, but they need someone to fill a similar void. The Bjorkstrand’s of the world should welcome that opportunity. A young club should band together, and I don’t see the Blue Jackets being any different.
DD: I sure hope I’m wrong on these first two points. One, assuming they lose Bobrovsky and Panarin, I don’t think they’ll make the playoffs next season. Second, since winning breeds excitement, I’d expect a lot of newer fans to fade into the background. Still, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Their extremely young team is going to get even younger, with 19-year-olds Texier and Emil Bemstrom expected to provide additional scoring punch for the forwards and 23-year-old Vladislav Gavrikov fortifying the defense corps. Seth Jones, who will have just turned 25 when the season starts, will play in his 500th career regular season game before the clock strikes 2020. Add in other young guns like Zach Werenski, Markus Nutivaara, Ryan Murray, Bjorkstrand, Dubois, etc., and this team has a lot of pieces in place that will make them strong for years to come.
CP: If the Blue Jackets don’t retain at least one of Duchene, Panarin or Bobrovsky, I'm pretty nervous for their playoff hopes next season. The best Blue Jacket team ever on paper barely snagged the eighth seed this year. Yes, I know they had to deal with a ton of adversity and drama through the course of the season, but losing those stars puts a huge dent in their potential. I hope I’m wrong, but this past season might’ve been their only true open window for a Cup for a while.
BJ: Expect plenty of drama in February and March as the new-look Jackets will be fighting for a playoff berth. Will there be extra drama (and games) in April? I don’t think so. Bobrovsky has spoiled this city with jaw-dropping performances on a regular basis. What happens when the offense gets cold for a long stretch? Even though Columbus won’t (please prove me wrong) make the playoffs in 2020, there’s zero doubt in my mind that this team will be on the rise and the organization will continue to feel great about the bold moves they made in the spring of 2019. When the time is right, the front office will strike at the trade deadline again. It just won’t be this upcoming season.
JN: With Panarin and Bobrovsky likely headed out the door, the path to the playoffs for the Blue Jackets will get a lot harder if those two are confirmed to depart. Goaltending will be a big question mark, and the club will lose their top scorer. However, the Blue Jackets have plenty of young players with great potential such as Bemstrom, who was recently signed to a three-year entry level contract, Texier, and Merzlikins – Bobrovsky’s most likely replacement. It will be interesting to see if the Blue Jackets’ youth will be a help or a hindrance, but at this moment in time, I think they will make the playoffs.